Every student’s best school

An important mind shift has taken place in Malmo over the last three years. The city’s collaborative model of ensuring each student develops as far as possible is delivering a more tailored approach to education.

“In every student’s best school, we are striving so hard to stimulate all pupils,” says Charlotte Hjertström, a quality control advisor for Malmo city council, who has a role in developing guidelines for the city’s educators.

Socially sustainable schools

Although Malmo generates a lot of jobs (more or less every second job in the South of Sweden), its unemployment rate, at 13.6%, is higher than the national average. With more people therefore relying on social welfare, this also has a knock-on effect for the municipality’s children – with a higher percentage living in poverty.

And with nearly half the population (48%) under 35 years old, focusing on education can be considered a much-needed strategic investment for Malmo’s future.

As Hjertström says, “education is a human right and it’s key to development,” but, even more than this there is a social sustainability aspect, because, Hjertström continues, “we are fostering citizens that are aware about all these different dimensions of sustainability.”

As one of the first municipalities in Sweden to sign the cities’ agreement to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including no.4 on inclusive and equitable quality education, the city has already sought to reorient its budget and decision making in a way to support this.

Insofar as the city’s educational goals are concerned, this has been made simpler by existing national policy in Sweden, through which schools receive ‘special’ and ‘extra’ adjustment measures for their budgets based on the needs of pupils in their care.

The data collected to make this possible for school funding purposes include such socioeconomic criteria as parents’ working status, the number of care givers at home and parents’ level of education, as well as surveys filled out by students themselves – and it is these kinds of figures that give a first indication to the schools of different students’ support needs.

Every Student’s Best School encourages a collaborative environment between teaching staff

However, Every Student’s Best School, which is based on a model from Ontario, Canada, provides teachers both more insight into how each student is performing and an opportunity to reflect on one’s own teaching methods by learning from and being a critical friend for colleagues.

The logic of Malmo’s approach, which adds a further rudder onto the national system, has been to challenge school principals’ way of thinking, setting a framework for teachers, and in turn the educational experience of students.

All school principals in the compulsory education system have received training in international school leadership and teachers have started adopting more collegial practices as a result, such as observing one another’s classes and taking time out to plan lessons together in an effort to create a 360° feedback loop.

​In addition, around 100 teachers have already been given learning opportunities to work with other teachers internationally, and through international projects, such as the ‘Digital Schools of Europe’ initiative, many of Malmo’s 80 schools are working towards a digital strategy and have already started e-twinning with other schools abroad to learn more.

Consider it culture

For a while now in Sweden primary-school aged children have been offered a personal development plan, meaning that there is a pathway mapped out for each child, as well as guaranteed access to a counsellor and a nurse.

Every Student’s Best School is more about working differently, so that school administrators, and more importantly teachers, have better oversight on how each child is performing, and are much more considerate of the individual needs that will best help each child to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to lead an active and independent life.

For example, moving where a child is seated in a classroom so that they are closer to the teacher, offering students that have dyslexia or other reading difficulties the option to listen to some lessons, working with some students to break down long texts or giving step by step instructions to students’ that have memory or concentration challenges.

As Hjertström comments, “I think that’s the culture we are building: every child counts.”

Inclusive schools

In Sweden, each child up to school year 6 receives a personal development plan

Of course, all this extra focus on offering children the best support possible has an impact on resources, including staff numbers. Malmo has experienced a significant increase in pupils in recent years and forecasts show that the increase will continue.

Alongside population growth and urbanisation within Sweden, Malmo currently welcomes around 1,000 foreign born students into its compulsory education system (ages 6-16) each year. The city’s inclusive education programme means that these students have a right to receive extra tuition in their mother tongue – a right currently enjoyed by around 2,500 students in 41 different languages. Foreign born students also attend classes in Swedish, but this extra support offers a key insight into the administration’s philosophy that every child should have an equal opportunity to achieve success.

To achieve this, the city administration has not only sought to retain current staff by focusing on skill development, and attracting new staff through salary hikes, but has additionally created new positions such as a ‘teacher assistant’ or ‘student coordinator’ that are designed to free up teachers to focus on their main task of teaching.

Money has also been ploughed into resources – every student has access to a tablet computer and some schools have experimented with Google classroom – a system that helps the communication process for homework assignments and sharing documents.

Striving for excellence

Originally planned for three years, Every Student’s Best School is set to continue.

Its data based approach includes an ongoing collaboration with the city’s university, which should help forge new insights into potential new avenues for the administration to explore.

Already, some areas for new research are clear – for instance, the results for mathematics are not as positive as the administration would like, and more work has to be done, too, on understanding why the lowest achievers are not doing better. Another future project, which Hjertström will lead, will look at how to diversify school attendance in different areas to better reflect the overall municipal population.

The drive to continue in this vein seems to be clear. As Hjertström puts it, “it’s our duty and responsibility to do our very best to make sure that every child can succeed.”

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer